Harvard Educational Review
  1. Storylines: Craftartists’ Narratives of Identity

    By Elliot G. Mishler

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 180 pp. $31.00

    We express, display, make claims for who we are — and who we would like to be — in the stories we tell and how we tell them. (p. 19)

    In Storylines: Craftartists’ Narratives of Identity, Elliot Mishler uses narrative analysis to examine the complex, multiple, and sometimes conflicting identities of several craftartists. The term itself, craftartist, encompasses one contradictory or dual identity assumed by Mishler’s subjects: on one hand, they identify themselves as artists, creating original, one of a kind objects, but also as craftspeople, creating useful, handmade objects like furniture that would otherwise be made by machine. This book uses data from a brief interview study to begin building theory and a narrative methodology of adult identity that shifts from assuming “the autonomous individual as the locus of identity and the source of its stability and constancy over time and across situations, to the socially situated production of identity and to the ways individuals position themselves vis-à-vis others” (p. 111). The book contains multiple thematic layers that interconnect and inform each other and is as much about the narrative method Mishler develops to better understand his subjects as it is about the subjects themselves. In one analytical layer, Mishler locates craftartisans and their work within U.S. society. In the final pages, Mishler hints at another thematic layer when he asserts that the research process itself is a “craft or skilled practice” (p. 162). Placed at the end of the book, this statement leads to a new interpretation of the book as Mishler’s exploration of the multiple identities of research — especially his own work — within the qualitative “subgenre” of narrative analysis.

    In chapter one, Mishler introduces the assumptions and theoretical tensions that he encountered in examining the interview data. As a researcher with a psychological, scientific background, Mishler recognizes that the traditional positivistic perspective assumes universality, continuity, and coherence, and locates identity within the individual. In this book, he begins to venture toward exploring ideas dialectically opposed to those assumptions, such as variability, discontinuity, and contradiction, locating identity as socially situated and relational. In chapters two through five, Mishler analyzes several case studies from these dialectic tension points. In chapter two, “Sources and Routes: Variable Pathways in Identity Formation,” for example, Mishler looks at how three different individuals relate to craftartistry. The chapter highlights differences in how each person became interested in the craftarts, how each negotiates their work in the contexts of their lives, and how each presents and represents their identities within the interview itself.

    At the end of chapter five, “Identities in/as Relationships within the Family and at Work,” Mishler utilizes narrative data from a woman in a second study to illustrate a phenomenon expressed by another of his interview subjects: the “dialectic of opposition where one’s claim for a positive identity may be justified by contrasting it with another’s negative identity” (p. 136). This idea helps him to explain how the two women define themselves in opposition to or outside of their husbands’ worlds — both women feel compelled to “carve out independent and separate lives” (p. 144) socially or through work. Ironically, Mishler, as a qualitative researcher located within the larger psychological and scientific research context, also seems to define his own research through a dialectic of opposition.

    In the final chapter, “Narrative Studies of Identity: A Forward Look,” Mishler recaps the theoretical arguments in his book, notes some of the weaknesses in his own study, and urges readers not to treat his methodology “as a template” (p. 145), but as a conversational beginning.

    A fascinating exploration of craftartists and their multiple identities, Storylines would be a great read for anyone interested in the crafts/arts or in better understanding adult identity issues. The most interesting aspect of this book, however, is Mishler’s effort to come to terms with his own identity/ies within the opposing research paradigms of positivism and interpretivism. This work provides an important conversation between the two paradigms.

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    Book Notes

    Understanding Schools as Intelligent Systems
    Edited by Kenneth Leithwood

    Escaping Education
    By Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva

    Schools that Learn
    By Peter Senge

    Storylines: Craftartists’ Narratives of Identity
    By Elliot G. Mishler

    Gramsci, Freire, and Adult Education
    By Peter Mayo